Cassini begins final journey towards Saturn as Nasa puts probe on path to destruction

Mark Piggott
NASA spacecraft Cassini prepares for final mission

Scientists at Nasa have placed space probe Cassini into a new orbit of Saturn that will mean it is destroyed by the gas giant's harsh atmosphere in September 2017. For the next five months, Cassini will explore the region between Saturn and its rings, where no man-made artefact has ever previously been.

After 12 years of exploration and incredible discoveries Cassini's fuel reserves are almost empty and scientists don't want to risk it crashing on either Titan or Enceladus in case there is life on either moon that might be contaminated. Another option would be to guide the probe further out into space, but Nasa believes sending it to its destruction will yield far more scientific discoveries.

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"If Cassini runs out of fuel it would be uncontrolled and the possibility that it could crash-land on the moons of Titan and/or Enceladus are unacceptably high," Dr Earl Maize, Nasa's Cassini programme manager, told BBC News. "We could put it into a very long orbit far from Saturn, but the science return from that would be nowhere near as good as what we're about to do."

Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived in the vicinity of Saturn in 2004.

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A year later it landed the Huygens probe on Titan, which has a thicker atmosphere than Earth, and found lakes and rivers of methane and ethane.

Cassini recently discovered that the moon of Enceladus has a liquid ocean which may be capable of sustaining life. Future probes will be equipped with the tools to analyse plumes of water escaping through cracks of ice on the moon's surface.

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Cassini spacecraft

Cassini has also examined and sent back incredible pictures of other moons, including Atlas, and Saturn's rings, which are 280,000km (175,000 miles) across, but at some points only 10 metres (30 feet) thick.

Now Cassini will be programmed to use Titan as a gravitational slingshot and from now until 15 September will get closer and closer to the planet, until it will finally burn up in its atmosphere.

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